Australia's cricket problem

From the department of being-too-good-is-a-problem?:
John Buchanan has called on administrators to consider a franchise system to loosen Australia's vice-like grip on cricket, but his successor, Tim Nielsen, is adamant the game is not suffering during this era of baggy green domination.

With Australia undefeated in Test cricket since the 2005 Ashes series and victorious in its past three World Cup campaigns, Buchanan believes the ever-expanding chasm between his former side and the rest of the world needs to be dealt with and extreme measures implemented.

Chief among those, Buchanan said, was allowing for a greater flow of players around the cricketing globe. With Australia experiencing a surplus of talented cricketers and many other countries faced with a dire shortage, Buchanan implored the International Cricket Council to consider relaxing regulations that prevent players from representing countries other than those of their origin.

That process could be expedited by allowing Test-playing nations to act like franchises, he added, and recruit cricketers from abroad without the restraints of the ICC's current regulations, which stipulate that a player must spend at least 183 days a year for four consecutive years in his adopted country — and only if he has never played for his nation of origin — to be eligible.

"This equality debate keeps bubbling to the surface and means that there is a serious issue there," Buchanan said. "I think it mightn't be a bad thing if the ICC looked at some rule relaxations, which might allow a more even distribution of players around the world.
I think John Buchanan's heart is in the right place, even if his head isn't. Australia's current cricket team is one of the best teams in the history of the game. Australia has not lost a test cricket series in Australia since 1992-93, and its record overseas in the past 15 years has been the best of all international teams. Moreover, Australia has won 74 of its last 100 tests, drawing 13 and losing 13. This is, to put it mildly, a golden age of Australian cricket.

It was not always so. My interest in Australian cricket started in the dark days of 1984/85 when a rampant West Indies thrashed Australia 3-1, who then went off and promptly lost the Ashes to England... again by 3-1. I remember those days, when Australian batting was as fragile as glass, when the bowling was being hit all over the place, and when fielders kept dropping catches.

Legends were made during this period. Allan Border stood like a rock while everything crashed around him. Soon he was joined by the likes of David Boon, Dean Jones, Steve Waugh, Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes and Bruce Reid. The pain of defeat taught these players how much they hated it, and spurred them on to success later. But while the team itself was developing its character, Australian cricket was changing behind the scenes. The creation of the Cricket Academy allowed talented young players to get a head start and, by the early 1990s, almost every State team in Australia had a high scoring youngster in its batting lineup. In short, not only was the team itself improving, but so was the "grass roots".

Australia's success today is due to this process. I still think our fast bowling stocks are not strong enough, and it will be many years before another spinner turns up who can take as many wickets as Warne or MacGill. Nevertheless, Australia's cricket infrastructure is the best in the world.

The problem now, of course, is the lack of credible opposition. When Australia lost the Ashes in 2005 it was seen as a harbinger of change. It is now increasingly looking like a minor aberration. In order for cricket in Australia to retain its massive public interest - and thus remain popular and profitable - the teams which tour Australia must be more competitive than they are now.

Buchanan's solution is, I fear, not the best. Buchanan knows that other international teams need to become stronger but his solution - letting good Aussie players play for other countries - won't work. It will certainly increase their standards (imagine if Matthew Inness played for Bangladesh, or Dominic Thornley for New Zealand, or Ashley Noffke for Zimbabwe) but it won't solve their underlying problem, which is their inability to produce home-grown players (players born in their country) that are of high class.

This is where England is a good example. In the mid 1990s the England cricket team was one of the lesser teams in the world. Since then, however, they have become a force to be reckoned with. When Australia played England back in 1986-87 (the first time I ever attended a Test match) many saw it as a battle between the "wooden spooners" - the two worst teams in world cricket. Last season, 2006-07, it was seen as a battle between the two best sides in cricket (even though the end result was horribly skewed). England's last 100 Tests have seen them win 45 and lose 30. But if you take out matches against Australia, then they have won 41 (out of 80, over 50%) and lost 16 (out of 80, 20%). Despite losing a few series lately, England remains firmly entrenched as the world's second best cricket team.

The answer to the problem of world cricket is to increase the standard of play and to invest in the "grassroots" in the countries involved. I think that having a World Test Cricket team made up of players from non-test playing countries should be seriously considered. I also think that English county cricket should open its playing ranks to any and every player they want without having to worry about qualification periods.

But the most important thing that Australian cricket should do is invest in international cricket itself. Cricket Australia should begin to invest more money in grassroots development in other cricket playing nations. Expanding the size of the Cricket Academy by taking in young players from Bangladesh or Zimbabwe or New Zealand - and then letting those young players play cricket in Australian conditions for a time - will strengthen domestic cricket in these countries. Another solution may be to have an annual tour by a team from Bangladesh or Kenya to compete in our domestic cricket competition. Having a Trans-Tasman domestic cricket competition would help New Zealand far more than it would help Australia.

Buchanan sees merit in exporting Australian players to other teams. An interesting idea but, as I said, it won't work because it doesn't address the issue of developing grassroots cricket. I would prefer to export money and ideas and people to other countries to ensure that these nations can compete solely on merit.

No comments: